Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Artist as an Atheist

. Madonna of the Magnificat Sandro Botticelli 1481 46" x 47"
Who you are and what you believe in informs your work. In earlier ages whether or not you were a believer (there were probably many closet atheists) the dominant religion in the west and many Asian countries dictated the content of much art.  If I had been an artist in the art world of Europe during the Renaissance I would be painting religious pictures, fervently praying (then) to get Madonnas, female saints and angels. I was a fashion illustrator early in my life dictated by finances, aptitude and opportunity. My Madonnas would have been the most gorgeous fashion forward depictions possible considering the realities of the conservative fashion tastes (vis-a-vis Madonnas) of the paying clientele of the day who were trying to ensure their place in heaven.  My beautiful Madonnas would have exquisite arched eyebrows,  beautiful chiseled noses, pale translucent skin, glowing cheeks matched by her radiant plump babies. There would have been lace, sumptuous velvets, over the top halos embellished with jewels and she would be sitting on a throne of bumptious clouds.

After the Renaissance religious art was superseded by the art for the one percent of the day, they were fortunate in having better painters than we do. Well being, the good life, what you had, what you wore, how you lived was was celebrated in sumptuous Dutch paintings of the upper classes in the 17th century. In the 18th century, the English set the tone for haughty portraiture of their good life and their wealthy, never to be exceded except by John Singer Sarget in the late 19th century.

 Victorian artists era brought home the bacon by painting historical epics, It was not so much what you believed as what the academy, French or English and its patrons wanted to support. They usually ran to giant Greek and historical Roman epics, usually spiced up with distressed naked maidens at slave markets or being dragged away by the villians du jour, the  Huns or Vandals. Strangely few of them appeared to have been dressed when these marauders arrived at their doors. WM Turner was an anomaly and a harbinger of the artist either as an independent thinker or out on a limb, depending on your viewpoint. Manet and Cezanne for the most part ignored historical painting and the impressionists found their gods in light and color. After World War One, point of view and beliefs were in free fall, they still are.

However it is 2016 yet many contemporary classical realists for better or worse are still painting as if it was 1864. The only commissions in reality are fat bankers, rapacious CEO's, stock brokers, dreary University heads and so on, their wives, some lovely, some not so much. There are course their children- predictably depicted in traditional clothing and white dresses. A depressing thought. I have done them .All subjects today are photographed and the pictures chosen by the client who knows what's what only because they are paying the bill. I know I seem (am) harsh when it comes to commissioned portraits, They are a genuine and honorable way to make a living, but for some reason contemporary portraiture cannot compete with the paintings of Titian, Rembrandt, Goya ,Velasquez and Sargent to name a few.  I think that this has to do with the modern acceptance of the photograph as the real truth of appearances ( John Berger) and copying them instead really looking at the ever changing visage of a subject. It is hard work.  The photo never moves and you can project or trace it- common practices. Why spend hours when your client is only interested in a oil painted version of it anyway. A few heroic painters like Steven Assael, luminous Nelson Shanks and the surprising and charming Tom Root /  manage to paint compelling images from life. It has cecome more of a craft than an art.There are a few painters that do religious commissions but somehow they have not produced any art with the gravitas,beauty and power of the great Renaissance painters like Titian, Botticelli, Raphael etc.- they look more like illustrations for bible stories.

Sunroom Tom Root

If you are able to leave those bill paying traps behind there still is the problem of what exactly to paint. and to paint what moves you. Indeed. If you have no hand of God guiding you and you have decide to wear the beret of the 'pure'- "The Fine Artist" you will be left out on an ice floe more dangerous than the ones in the early silent movies. Figurative, Abstract, neo- Expressionism, Impressionism, Brutalism- I can't go futher because a have not kept a list of all the isms that are au-courant. Many of them are simply silly and fatuous invented by those as a loin cloth to cover their artistic ineptitude and impress the critics.  You must have an ism. Really!?  What ism? Has 'ism" replaced religion or God. What in the hell to be or paint? Is "ism"  your painting identity?

So,stranded and alone in your studio, room, garage, garret, corner of a room, grasping your brushes you have decided to paint what you, gasp! love. Wrong- or so many will tell you. You should be discouraged. Yes! you should.  We have a glut of artists. tens of thousands graduate every year from universities, art schools, ateliers and online courses burdened with obscene school loan debt.  Many will not survive, many are inept, many will learn how to game the system and worshipping the God of money and the art CEO flattery will make fortunes.

OK the what do I love? What do I do? What do I believe in?

I can only talk for myself. I cannot imagine at anytime in my life not doing, breathing and thinking about art, all day long and into the night.  I cannot be Kathe Kollwitz, Manet, Euan Uglow, Matisse, Picasso. I can only do what I can do no matter what precarious branch I step out on.  My work is sometime frivolous- it is what it is. I believe in beauty. I love beauty. It is a force. It is the only reason for me to paint. It is hard work, heartbreaking work. My first husband, Eugene Tonoff said that "Art isn't for sissies".

Odilon Redon's complicated beliefs infused his art. Here is an excerpt of Amanda F. Rookes essay

Opehelia amomg the Flowers Odlon  Redon


The word “evolve” comes from the Latin root “evolutio, evolotus, evolvere and volvere” meaning to unroll or to unfold. The nineteenth century witnessed not only secular scientific evolution but was also interested in spiritual evolution. The concept of evolution was central to Redon’s beliefs and artistic practice. He drew his beliefs from multiple strands of science and religion including Theosophy, Hinduism and Buddhism. Redon believed that the Creator had implanted a piece of Himself inside every material thing which was created. In his own words there was “a divine germ in a little matter.” In Theosophical belief the purpose of life was to unroll the material covering and bring to birth the inner soul like the unrolling of plants’ leaves and buds. One person who became one with the spirit underlying nature was the Buddha. Redon was familiar with this belief through the writings of the Theosophist Edouard Schuré. Schuré thought that the Buddha brought to birth this inner soul through his meditations upon the cause of human suffering. Thus the Buddha showed humanity how to achieve the goal of evolution. According to Schuré and Redon, the goal was the birth of spirit out of matter. Schuré was Redon’s main Theosophical source. Schuré‘s studio was near to Redon’s and Schuré gave Redon a signed copy of Schuré‘s book, Les grands initiés. Schuré found parallels to the phenomena of the soul in the body, in the inner life in material nature, and in the abstraction underlying realism. He believed that a marriage of opposites would achieve unity and harmony. This is the context for the combinating of religion with science and of the perceptive (female) subconscious with the rational (male) superconsciousness as this paper will demonstrate. In Redon’s work the perceptive subconscious is represented by an eye within the head
This is a very simplistic overview of belief systems influencing art. I did it mainly to claify my belief system for myself. I had been involved in Guru Yoga Buddhism for a very long time and have come to the conclusion that I am simply an atheist. It is not something I announce loudly in my conservative Roman Catholic state.

It is beauty that moves me.

Here are some quotes on beauty and aesthetics from Robert Grudin's beautiful book.

"The Grace of Great Things- Creativity and Innovation'

The book, is sadly out of print but you can get used copies at Amazon or used book stores.

"Excellence of mind itself, rightly conceived, is expertise in beauty; creativity is wise love."

"What liberates the imagination is the sense that work in its theory and practice holds aesthetic possibilities, that jobs can be elegantly conceived and gracefully done. This sense of beauty unlocks feelings of pleasure and love and breaks down the barrier between worker and work and commit to work not merely the "thinking" consciousness but the full resources of mind."

“ gravity, beauty is a force whose existence is inferred from its apparent effects.”

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